After a long illness, Moira arrived at the Gates of Heaven. While she was waiting for St Peter to greet her, she peeked through the Gates. She saw a beautiful banquet table. Sitting all around were her parents and all the other people she had loved and who had died before her. They saw her and began calling greetings to her: ‘Hello’, ‘How are you!’ ‘We’ve been waiting for you!’ ‘Good to see you.’
Then St Peter came back and Moira said to him, ‘This is such a wonderful place! How do I get in?’
You have to spell a word,’ St Peter told her.
‘Which word?’ Moira asked.
Moira correctly spelt ‘Love’ and she was welcomed into Heaven.
A few years later, St Peter asked Moira to watch the Gates of Heaven for the day. While Moira was guarding the Gates of Heaven, her husband Alistair arrived.
‘I’m surprised to see you,’ Moira said. ‘How have you been?’
‘Oh, I’ve been doing pretty well since you died,’ Alistair said. ‘I married the beautiful young nurse who took care of you while you were ill. And then I won the lottery. I sold the little house you and I lived in and bought a big mansion. And my wife and I travelled all around the world. We were on holidays and I went water skiing today. I fell, the ski hit my head, and here I am. How do I get in?’
‘You have to spell a word,’ Moira told him.
‘Which word?’ Alistair asked.
Essentially, what I’ve just told you is an updated and expanded perception of the afterlife that the Sadducees in today’s gospel would have used had they lived today. They told the story of a woman and her seven husbands to mock the idea of the afterlife and to denigrate Jesus and his audience. I think we need to have a closer look at who the Sadducees were to better understand the whole situation.
The Sadducees were a prominent group within the Jewish society, associated with the Temple in Jerusalem and the Jewish high priesthood. Their religious beliefs were based on the Torah; or in our language, the first five books of the Bible, traditionally ascribed to Moses. Anything and everything that happened and was recorded after the death of Moses (we know that as the Old Testament) was not considered by the Sadducees as God’s revelation. Yes, they were stories of their nation’s past, part of the national folklore and cultural background, but nothing more than that. We need to know that to understand Jesus’ response to their story. The resurrection of the dead and afterlife (heaven or hell) weren’t part of their religious beliefs. They rejected such a concept as having no base in the Torah. Effectively, the Sadducees had appointed themselves as the custodians of the sole right to interpret the Mosaic faith; that put them on a collision course with other groups of Jews, like the Pharisees or Jesus and his followers. In fact – as with every sectarian movement – the Sadducees felt superior to the other groups and despised them.
Let’s go back to the gospel now. As I said earlier on, the Sadducees presented a believable case of a woman who had been married consecutively to seven brothers, having no children with any of them and because of that, each man could claim her as his wife, which would be against the law. This was the Sadducees’ argument against an afterlife. In their mind, it would be ridiculous, illogical and against God’s law, i.e. God would contradict himself. Not much has changed since then. There’s a strong current in the modern western culture to present Christianity as ridiculous, or illogical, or self-contradictory – or all three at once. In his response, Jesus explained that the Sadducees’ premise was wrong. The afterlife wasn’t a mirrored reflection of the earthly life, with all its rules, regulations, habits, traditions and so on. The afterlife is an utterly different kind of existence, unrestricted by time, or space, or imperfect earthly bodies. The words ‘they are the same as angels and being children of the resurrection, they are sons of God’ are just a glimpse into the indescribable reality of eternal happiness and complete fulfilment. Whatever images, pictures, parables or descriptions of the afterlife we find in the Bible, they are just awkward attempts at casting some light on a reality which is beyond any description. St Paul, in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, made that brilliantly clear: ‘no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.’ (2:9) It is dangerous to make one’s mind-capability the criteria of what’s possible and what’s not. To most of us, quantum-physics is mind-boggling, but very few reject quantum-physics as ridiculous.
The second part of Jesus’ response referred to the Sadducees’ holy scripture and their sole authority, Moses. Jesus gave them a new interpretation, a new understanding of what they had read and known for so long. It shows that our understanding of the faith must grow and mature as we grow and mature. One of the main reasons people drift away from faith is that their understanding of it stopped at the first communion level. What was appropriate and relevant to an 8-year-old and their capability, is not so to an 18- or 28-year-old. To such people faith seems ridiculous, illogical or self-contradictory, completely irrelevant to their lives. Consequently, on the one hand, there are people clinging to their faith yet unable to explain it to the outside world; on the other hand, there are people who drift away from the faith they were brought up in.
The lesson of today’s gospel is much less about the resurrection of the body and afterlife. It’s mainly about growing in faith, growing in understanding of the faith and subsequently living the faith out in our lives. Your faith will not grow by itself; it requires some study and active relationship with God. It’s a bit sad that the Bible study program we’ve been running for 6 weeks now has more participants from outwith than from within the parish; in fact, some of them travel significant distances every Tuesday evening. When you grow in faith; when your understanding of it deepens, it will become your rock and support in difficult moments, and it will keep your feet firmly on the ground in happy circumstances. Faith, when it is alive, has a great power to help you to find happiness, without needing to spell Czechoslovakia.